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Blinded By The Fight: The MMA Eye Poke Hall Of Shame

eye pokeAn increasingly serious problem in the world of mixed martial arts that is crying to be addressed before the professional career of one of the sport’s top athletes is permanently put on the shelves is the difficulty many fighters seem to be having keeping their fingers out of their opponents’ eye sockets.

While combat athletes have been suffering from accidental eye gouges since the earliest days of physical confrontation, the fact that the illegal and potentially career ending trend seems to be all the rage these days has left me wondering if the majority of the significant cases of eye gouging could truly be chalked up as “just one of those things that happen”.

Athletes have been trying to get an edge in every sport on the face of the earth since competition was a concept. From steroids, to greasing, to figure skaters hiring henchman to take their rivals out at the knees; The question as to whether some of these guys are shoving their digits into the baby blues of their foes intentionally has to be asked.

It doesn’t take a doctor or optometrist to tell me that getting something jammed deep into your eye socket is going to do some damage that will take what is often longer than the five minutes allotted in mixed martial arts event to come back from. Anyone that has had a finger stuck into their eye can attest to it being one of the most painful experiences of their lives, combined with the fact that it’s the type of pain that you often can’t just bounce back from. The blurry vision from being poked in the eye can many times last for great lengths of time, making it painfully clear that a fighter that has suffered fro a serious violation of the eye wouldn’t be back to 100% for some time afterwords.

Are fighters actually studying the eye poke? Now obviously they can’t be going all Three Stooges on their training partners in practice or they wouldn’t have anyone to train with left. No, what I’m asking is; Are guys planning on throwing out that jab open-handed to the blinker and following up with a series of punches before the poor sap has a chance to complain.

While I’d like to hope this is not the case, my common sense tells me otherwise. Is the next trend going to be to grow your fingernails out to Freddy Kruger proportions to inflict maximum damage from a poke to the eyeball? Let us not forget that while MMA is still in it’s growing stages, all one has to do is look at the history of boxing that has been littered with incidents such as cornermen serving up special cocaine laced mixtures of water to their fighters in between rounds, smearing vaseline on gloves to blind opponents, removing the padding from gloves, and a laundry list of other infractions.

While the huge majority of athletes follow by the rules laid down by the sport they chose to compete in, there will always be a small handful of …. cheaters that will look to get an edge regardless of the consequences. Even if those consequences mean leaving a fellow man blinded for the rest of his life if it means adding another victory to their belt.

While none of these following cases may have been intentional, I feel like it’s fair to point out some of the most notable examples of the dreaded eye gouge in recent MMA memory to gauge exactly how significant of a problem it promises be in the future if left unaddressed.

So follow me as we take a journey into the “MMA Eye Poke Hall Of Shame“:

Josh Koscheck vs. Anthony Johnson

In a double feature of optical punishment, both Johnson and Koscheck suffered damage to the eye when their UFC 106 welterweight showdown was all said and done. First it was Kos who cried foul after a missed knee from Johnson to the grounded American Kickboxing Academy trained fighter was proceeded by a finger to the eye which forced a halt in the contest. Then it was Koscheck’s turn to return the favor…. twice. According to Johnson’s head trainer Cung Le in a recent conversation with FiveOuncesofPain, it were those two pokes in the eye that may have played a vital hand in changing the momentum of the bout.

“Unfortunately there were a few things like Johnson getting a little overexcited with that knee, and Koscheck not closing his hand when he threw a jab,” explained the former Strikeforce champion in regards to the bout between AJ and Kos. “I think that he just got caught in the eye and the whole momentum changed. It is what it is, you know.”

Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic vs. Mustapha Al-Turk AND Josh Barnett

The saying goes, “Right kick: Hospital, Left kick: Cemetery”, but you can throw in “Index fingers: Optometrist” following Mirko’s most recent use of the finger to the eye technique commonly associated with the Chinese fighting art, Wing Chun. The ending of the bout with Al-Turk came after a poke to both eyes of Mustapha had the seasoned Brit fighter running for cover. Cover which he never found as Cro Cop finished him off with strikes after the foul went unnoticed by referee Dan Miragliotta.

No stranger to pulling out victories following the placement of his fingers into the eyes of his victims, Filipovic also got away with a fight ending eye poke in his September, 2006 Pride Final Conflict Absolute showdown with Josh Barnett. The end to the pair’s third meeting came late into the first round when Barnett submitted after a foul to the eye was followed up with a series of strikes.

B.J. Penn vs. Kenny Florian AND Matt Hughes

Kenny Florian’s brother, Keith Florian, described Penn’s penchant for the eye poke in a conversation with, stating, “There are a lot of things that happened during the [UFC 101] fight that you may or you may not have seen. Kenny got poked in the eye, which BJ is notorious for. He did it against Matt Hughes twice in one fight and once in their first fight. He did it against Georges St. Pierre in both fights. He was hitting behind the head all of the time. Kenny won’t say this, but I certainly will.”

Kevin Burns vs. Anthony Johnson

In one of the most blatant abuses of the foul, Burns went on record with Joe Rogan immediately following his third round “TKO” over Johnson in the pair’s first meeting, stating that his hand was injured and he knew full well he wouldn’t be able to close his fist during the bout. Furthermore, Burns holds the dubious distinction of being the few men in sanctioned mixed martial arts to actually hold a TKO victory via eye poke on his record.

Robbie Lawler vs. Scott Smith I.

Lawler vs. Smith is a perfect example of what should happen in many of the eye gouge cases that are wrongfully permitted to continue. This is one of the few cases where the fight was actually brought to a screeching halt due to the foul after Lawler’s fingers sunk deep into the inner regions of Smith’s headlights in the third round of what had been an exciting give and take battle.

Dan Henderson vs. Rich Franklin

Franklin suffered some extensive damage to his eye after an poke in the eye from Dan Henderson during the pair’s UFC 93 meeting in January of this year. The former UFC middleweight champion wound up on the losing end of a split decision after the damage from the gouge had been done.

Chuck Liddell vs. Everyone

Synonymous with the infamous MMA eye gouge of doom, “The Iceman” has perfected the art of making pokes to the eyes work for you at the highest level of the game. Liddell has stuck his fingers into the binoculars of fighters such as Randy Couture , Tito Ortiz and Vernon White during the course of his career, with the latter of the two being finished on the immediate heels of the foul.

White actually had some extremely interesting comments in regards to his UFC 49 clash with Liddell in a conversation with 5 Oz. where he claimed it was actually Chuck’s fingers, and not his fist that brought a short ending to their bout.

“There are some guys in the sport that have a way of punching with their fingers not all the way open, but they leave their knuckles extended so the knuckle can go right in the eye, which can cause severe damage,” explained the Lion’s Den trained fighter. “As far as I’m concerned, you need to close your fists and fight like a man. I don’t have anything against Chuck, he’s doing what he needs to do to win, but sooner or later someone’s going to do it to them, and then they’ll realize what it feels like. My eye took 38,000 dollars to fix. Maybe they’re waiting until someone gets their eye taken completely out.”

Dan Miragliotta vs. Heath Herring’s eyeball

In this edition of Five Ounces’ Believe It Or Not; Did you know that referee Dan Miragliotta somehow managed to shove his finger in Heath Herring’s eye just prior to his one sided loss at the hands of Brock Lesnar? The unfortunately embarrassing incident actually occurred as Heath and Brock were brought together in the pre-fight instructions. Dan pokes Herring in the eye by mistake and “The Texas Crazy Horse” gives the longtime referee a look like he had just kissed him on the lips. Now I’m not blaming Miragliotta for what ended up happening to Herring at the hands of Lesnar during their UFC 87 meeting, but as fate would have it, the poked eye was quickly shattered by Brock in the opening moments of the bout. It was all downhill from there. Nice one Dan.

So what’s the solution you ask? I’ll point firmly in the direction of the Pride Fighting Championships (R.I.P., sniff, sniff) as to my inspiration for the quick fix in regards to the growing menace that is the eye gouge.

First off, let’s institute a yellow card program where fighters are immediately deducted a percentage of their purse if the foul is ruled severe enough to warrant the penalty. When you start talking about ten or twenty percent being docked from the paychecks of certain fighters, you’re talking about serious money. Serious enough money to give a fighter looking for an edge enough reason to play fair. Serious enough money to give a fighter not looking for an edge a reason to be a little extra careful in areas he should already be careful with; such as groin strikes and eye gouges for example.

Second off, what was wrong with the PRIDE gloves? It’s the design I’m referring to specifically. The PRIDE variation of MMA gloves featured a loose thumb, but all of the other fingers were not only connected, but padded all the way up to the top.

In my opinion there’s not a good enough reason to keep all of the fingers separated as they are right now. In PRIDE, submission artists such as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira had no problem pulling off a slew of submissions, and strikers such as Wanderlei Silva had no problem utilizing their clinch to the fullest.

Whether my recommendations are a glimpse into the solution of the problem or not, the fact of the matter that eye gouges will continue to be a problem within the sport until a career is ruined is an inevitability unless something is done to correct the sight threatening menace that refuses to be swept under the carpet.